Off Limits

A growing concern

Although it's still spring, northwest Denver is already harvesting a bumper crop of bickering. Seeds of dissension have been sown all over the neighborhood, in plots linking entities as diverse as community gardens, Wal-Mart, T-Mobile and...Clay Aiken?

Last Friday night, Laura Altschul, T-Mobile director of national siting policy, sat shaking her head in the LoDo offices of the American Institute of Architects Colorado. After fighting with Highland residents last year over a cell-phone tower proposed for the alley at 32nd Avenue and Zuni Street -- and ultimately losing its case in the city's zoning department -- the service-challenged provider decided to play nice with the neighbors. So T-Mobile agreed to co-host a design competition with the AIAC, giving locals the opportunity to create a tower they'd be willing to live with rather than the fifty-foot-high, three-foot-in-diameter metal tube that the company had originally envisioned.

Fifty people entered the competition, which promised a top prize of $5,000 and a free T-Mobile phone (which is basically useless in Colorado outside of the Front Range). But there was no guarantee the winning design would be built.

Deluxe cell towers in the sky: The first-, fourth- and 
third-place winners in  T-Mobile's design competition 
(from left).
Deluxe cell towers in the sky: The first-, fourth- and third-place winners in T-Mobile's design competition (from left).

"T-Mobile was very proud to be able to sponsor this type of collaborative approach to finding designs that come from the community, as long as they meet our technical needs for construction. We're hoping to roll this out country-wide," Altschul says. "We'll take a look at the top five and see if any are feasible to incorporate even in a modified fashion into any of our designs. Of course, the other piece is whether the design review boards and zoning staff think any of these are applicable under current codes."

Judging alongside such architectural landmarks as Westword's own Kenny Be, Altschul was stunned by some of the creations. "She's a pragmatist, because it's her job to find economic ways to do tower installation," explains Denver urban designer Rich Carstens, who helped organize the competition. "She might have been a little bit overwhelmed at the level of design these projects took. But the designers weren't really told that they had to be economical; they were simply told to use their minds."

The five judges determined that Peter Burr and Matt Faichnie of Colorado Springs had put their minds to the best use, and this past Monday the duo collected their cash and phones at the Will Bruder lecture at the University of Colorado. Their "Transform Perception," a towering structure covered in perforated Teflon fabric, was "based conceptually on the chrysalis," Carstens says. "The tower was a caterpillar, and now it's turning into a butterfly."

CU professor Michael Hughes placed second with "Bus Stop," combining a cell-phone tower and bus stop in a design that earned him $2,000 and a free cell phone. Third place was a tie, with Architecture Denver's Katya Altmann, Matt Lawton, Josh Larimer, Rosie Fivian and Steve Chucovich sharing honors -- and $600 -- with Daniel Aizenman. "Those Pesky Poles," Mark Doering's takeoff on Coors Field's foul-ball poles, took fourth.

But Doering's design might have been the most appropriate for the site, since people are crying foul all over northwest Denver these days.

Since developer Chuck Perry announced that he planned to include a Wal-Mart in the Highland Garden Village retail project he's building on the old home of Elitch Gardens, he and the nation's biggest retailer have been targets of the same sort of manure flung at T-Mobile. So far, though, no happy design competitions have been announced to appease the neighbors, and StopElitchWalMart signs are sprouting in yards throughout the area.

The distaste for Wal-Mart is so intense that it's spilled over into a community garden in the triangle formed by 29th Avenue, Clay Street and Speer Boulevard. Over the past six years, Ray Defa and a group of residents transformed a weed-filled property assigned to the Denver Department of Public Works into a xeriscaped perennial garden. But on December 5, the city's Parks and Recreation Department cut the plants to the ground -- for the second time.

"A couple of years ago, Parks and Rec mowed down all the perennial flowers," Defa says. "They just whacked them down. They said it was weeds, and we told them they were perennials. They went away for two years, and then in July of last year, the horticulturalist for the northwest district called and said if we didn't maintain it, they were going to trim it."

After the plants disappeared altogether, Defa had a talk with Denver City Councilwoman Judy Montero, and the city agreed to replant the park.

"We had some changeover in staff, and what happened is the staff that took over that area wasn't aware that there was a neighborhood connection," explains Tiffany Moehring, spokeswoman for Parks and Rec (a job once held by Montero). "There was a general maintenance concern, and we had received a couple citizen concerns. It was a xeriscape garden, so it was designed by the neighbors so it wouldn't take a lot of maintenance, but the area did need some attention. After they cleaned it out, we got a call from Ray, and we were extremely apologetic. Had we had known a neighborhood group was involved, we would have managed it very differently."

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